What is strategic competence?

communicative competence elt strategic competence Aug 26, 2021


By Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

How do you participate in a conversation if you are not familiar with the topic? What can you do if your listeners misunderstood you? In order to prepare learners for these situations, materials developers should include instances of communication breakdowns and repair strategies in their dialogue examples, because an excellent knowledge of grammar and vocabulary is insufficient on its own for effective communication.

Unfortunately, research shows that dialogues in English language textbooks do not reflect authentic language use. For example, Wong (2002) analysed telephone conversations in English language textbooks and her findings show that the conversations are different from typical naturally occurring ones.

A holistic view

Strategic competence, an aspect of communicative competence, refers to the ability to overcome difficulties when communication breakdowns occur (Celce-Murcia, Dörnyei & Thurrell, 1995). Rather than viewing communication breakdowns as a deficit, teachers should take them as an opportunity for learners to develop their strategic competence.

Celce-Murcia, Dörnyei and Thurrell (1995) suggest a number of strategies to respond to communication breakdowns. Perhaps the most straightforward strategy is to avoid discussing unfamiliar topics, but this is not always possible.

Strategies for identifying whether a breakdown has occurred include paying attention to body language and frequently checking listener comprehension.

Theory and practice

Knowing that communication breakdowns occur in authentic speech, teachers should prepare learners to respond to such situations.

It is important for learners to be aware that communication breakdowns are not uncommon among competent users of English. A sound understanding of communication can prevent learners from feeling discouraged when they encounter communication breakdowns.

Teachers can develop and teach language patterns to help prevent and repair breakdowns. For example, the ability to paraphrase what the speaker has said and to ask checking questions is a very useful skill, and one that is very common among competent speakers.

One of the ways to draw learners to this feature of authentic communication is to show them recordings of TV interviews and talk shows. Then, learners can identify strategies that interviewees and interviewers use to compensate communication problems. A follow-up activity could be a role play.


Celce-Murcia, M., Dörnyei, Z. & Thurrell, S. (1995). Communicative competence: A pedagogically motivated model with content specifications. Issues in Applied Linguistics, 6(2), 5-35.

Wong, J. (2002). Applying conversation analysis in applied linguistics: Evaluating dialogue in English as a second language textbooks. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, 40, 37-60.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based independent researcher and an education consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

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